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With Guatemala Encroaching, Belize Heads to the Polls

Campaigning in the tiny Central American country has been marked by Guatemala's president-elect saying that he wants to give a new push to his country's claims to half of Belizean territory.
Photo by Nathaniel Janowitz

Belize goes to the polls today after a campaign that has focused on fears that whoever forms the next government of the tiny Central American nation may have to fend off a major push by neighboring Guatemala to absorb half of its territory.

"The first duty and obligation of any government is the preservation of the nation state, the protection and defense of our territorial integrity, our national sovereignty," said Francis Fonseca, leader of the opposition People's United Party, or PUP. Fonseca has been playing the nationalist card in his bid to oust incumbent Prime Minister Dean Barrow and his United Democratic Party, or UDP.


The border issue was re-ignited by last month's presidential elections in Guatemala in which former comedian and winning candidate Jimmy Morales emphasized his intention to intensify his country's long-standing territorial claims over Belize.

Guatemala, a country that trumps Belize by a large margin in population, land mass, and military strength, has long claimed that it is entitled to over 12,000 square kilometers of Belizean territory; more than half of the country. This dispute goes back to treaties signed between colonial powers in the 17th and 18th centuries, and was first claimed by Guatemala in 1940, when Belize was still a British Colony and Guatemala had long been a sovereign nation.

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Prior to the election of the new Guatemalan President a number of issues had also raised tension, including Guatemalan navy patrols of the contested Belizean Sarstoon Island since August and continued poaching of trees and Mayan artefacts by Guatemalan nationals in Belize.

Belizean foreign minister Wilfred Elrington met with Guatemalan ministers in May 2015 and signed an agreement that commits each country to organizing a national referendum on whether the issue should be brought to the International Court of Justice in The Hague for deliberation. The dates for the referendums have yet to be set. If both are approved then the Court would be put in charge of settling the dispute once and for all.


Opposition candidate Fonseca has made much of Prime Minister Barrow's support of Elrington after the foreign minister's 19 minute address to the U.N in early October, which glossed over Belize-Guatemala relations at a time when many Belizeans were feeling nervous as Morales romped towards victory in Guatemala.

"It has become an election issue because the present government and present foreign minister have been very soft on Guatemala, and allowed them to ride roughshod over the Belizean people," former PUP Prime Minister Said Musa told VICE News. "We're a small country of roughly 350,000 people. Guatemala is 4-5 times the size with a population in excess of 13 million, with an army 10 times the size of Belize's little army, and we do not have a defense guarantee."

Related: Comedian Leading Guatemalan Presidential Race Accused of Being Front for the Military

Barrow has sought to play down the territorial dispute as a campaign issue as he seeks to become the first three term head of state since Belizean independence in 1981.

"Something as critical as our sovereignty should not be politicised," Shyne Barrow, his son, told VICE News. "Every foreign minister, PUP and UDP, has taken the same position that this issue should be resolved at the ICJ."

Shyne Barrow gained international fame for his collaborations with Hip-Hop artists like Lil' Wayne and Usher, and notoriety for his involvement in a 1999 shooting in a night-club he had attended with his former producer Sean "Puffy" Combs and Combs' then girlfriend Jennifer Lopez.


He sold millions of albums during his nine-year stint in prison until his release in 2009 and deportation back to Belize where his father had recently been elected the country's new Prime Minister. He has since become an unpaid culture ambassador for the government.

"(This election) is about a government that has brought stability to a country that was destabilized and left in economic and social ruin by the PUP," the younger Barrow insisted.

But with the focus of the campaign on Belize-Guatemala relations, other once-dominant issues such as crime, poverty, environmental conservation, the nationalization of several major industries, and the use of foreign aid have become back burner issues.

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Jose A. Sanchez, a well-known Belizean journalist, told VICE News that he thinks Belizean voters may well give Barrow another chance, but he expected the result to be tight.

"The whole Jimmy Morales situation has created a lot of hype," he said, stressing the opposition's efforts to fan the flames. "But we'll find out soon enough if that was a good plan, because Belizeans have always had the Guatemalan issue hanging over their heads. Is it any more important now to the people? We'll have to wait and see."

Follow Nathaniel Janowitz on Twitter: @ngjanowitz